There is ample evidence that one of the most important resources people need in the aftermath of trauma is connection to family and familiar networks of support (Boscarino, J.A., Adams, R. & Figley, C., 2005). If you have ever spent time in the waiting area of an ICU unit or the emergency waiting area of a hospital you understand the way that families rally to be there for each other in times of crisis.
If you have ever crowded into a maternity ward to view a new baby, saved chairs at the Nursery School recital, or flown miles for a sister’s wedding, or a brother’s return from Iraq, then you also know how families come together to support and celebrate each other in times of joy.
Where does the stress come in? Why? Can it be avoided?
A couple’s relationship with the families they share is far more complicated than it looks the day of their wedding – actually it is usually pretty complicated even on that day! Whether a couple has been together 25 years or 2 years, whether or not they have children, there are two other families consciously or unconsciously involved with the family they have created together.
From a family systems perspective (PDF) we are talking about the overlap of three distinct family systems and given the number of reconstituted and blended families, there may even be more systems and dynamics in the picture.
Family as a System
Consider that every family as a system has a defined boundary ( which may be tightly closed or easily opened) predictable patterns, expectations, assigned roles, explicit and implicit rules, codes of behavior, religious beliefs, educational levels, recipes of choice, ethnic roots, rituals and social-economic status.
When a person meets a partner and bonds with them, they choose to open their family system boundary and include another and at the same time to step away from their system to enter a new one. Buoyed by love, desire, differences, similarities, future dreams, partners are willing to make the adjustments- the rest of the family, however, is brought along without choice- sometimes delighted and sometimes not.
Given that life is not a sitcom and family members are not caricatures, families can be loving, critical, welcoming, judgmental and generous at different times both to their own family member and/or their partner. The fall-out on couples is not easy and is particularly challenging at highly emotional times and in the face of crisis.
“ Why didn’t you call us to bring you to the hospital?”
“ So now you are supporting him?”
“ How can he be taking care of his mother instead of his own family?”
Despite the stability of a partner’s bond or their attempt to carry the positives as well as change some of the negatives of their original family history, crisis situations, family of origin needs and family reactions often trigger early identifications and expectations. The result is that family bonds can become family binds. Feeling anxious, guilty, trying to juggle multiple roles and allegiances, partners experience the stress and strain between them.
Is There A Way For A Couple To Maintain Family Bonds And Reduce Family Binds? Maybe
Here are some ideas for understanding family binds and using your bond as a way to facilitate support and filter negative impact.
When one partner is suddenly faced with family crisis, the lives of both partners change. Find a way to stay together, either with literal support, compassionate listening, or adjusting roles or chores at home. The more connected and supportive you stay – the more credibility you have to underscore alternative resources, point out impossible demands, or join in the search for additional help.
Steven and Brenda found a way to combine support resources after Brenda’s sister died of cancer. Steven wanted to help and began to pick up the slack at home while Brenda spent almost every night getting dinner for her four nephews. Steven knew that it was her way of staying close to her sister, but still he starting feeling like he was the one who had lost his wife. Brenda felt bad about this but had no answers—she missed her sister terribly and felt that if she had been the one who died, her sister would have been there for Steven and their children. Tension between Brenda and Steven began to build. It was only when Steven got involved with his nephews and his brother-in-law and encouraged Brenda to invite them back to their house that the tension began to ease. Both seemed relieved as they started facing the crisis as a team. ( Healing Together,p.55)
Pass on the Invitation to ‘Bad Mouth’ Your Partner
Some families reinforce rigid boundaries by projecting negative feelings and criticism to the “ outsiders.” If your partner is the target- think twice about joining in. Joining in the critique of your partner implicates you and dilutes the integrity of your relationship. You might simply walk away from it. Disagree with it or make it clear, “When you criticize him/her you hurt me.” It is more difficult for a family to criticize if they fear they will jeopardize the bond with you.
Think Twice About Using Family As The Place “ To Vent” About Partners
If you lay out all the negatives of your partner as a way to feel relieved and then go home, you leave your family feeling protective of you and negative toward your partner – remember, they don’t go home with you to “ make up.”
Something to Consider
If many different family members are making note of some behavior, addiction or illness that they observe in your partner, reconsider it from your perspective. As seen in the blog ( Secrets, Lies and Relationships) we often need to deny what would be too painful to know about partners. Make your own observations and bring it up on your own – in the relationship context.
Validation vs. Criticism
Sometimes you are aware that your partner is upset by the continued conflict or criticism of his/her own family. Jumping in to fight , encouraging cutting off family ties or criticizing his/her family seldom works. In fact you may already have learned that we are all allowed to criticize our families – but no one else can. After all they belong to us!
Protection or Repeat Pattern
Protecting your partner by criticizing them for tolerating their family, or pointing out their family’s dysfunctional patterns is too often just a repeat of the criticism they have already lived with. Keep in mind that it also underscores the shame they already carry for having critical or dysfunctional parents. No one gets to pick their parents!
Inlaws or Outlaws
If the family of your partner welcomes you and makes efforts to please and connect with you while criticizing or ignoring your partner ( their own family member) – ask yourself why? If it is the family you always wanted – then it is worth seeing what happens when you respond to their critique of your partner with overt praise or support in front of them. If they persist – wonder why. How loving are they to you if they are hurting the person you love?
Mediating the Memories
Since people get locked into early roles with family members, the partner who only knows the family as an adult often can reinforce the adult status of their partner and even make sense of family patterns that have good intentions but trip old memories. As one man said “The plane just has to touch down in Texas and I turn into the insecure younger brother!” The presence of his partner reminding him of his success and pointing out that his brother’s comments were compliments was very helpful.
Couple Coping Strategies
Listening, confirming, supporting in the face of family dynamics is invaluable in giving your partner the confidence to stand up for themselves.
If they can’t get one of you to criticize the other and you overtly support each other – you have scored a win. “Right, she doesn’t cook – but have you seen her play golf?” “No matter how much he travels – I know he is there for us.”
Plan ahead to use a code work like “ interesting” or non-verbal cues like glances that mean “Here we go again!” “Do you believe this?” or the affirmation that comes from a hand on a shoulder, a hug, a tap on the knee to dilute the stress from family dynamics.
Don’t Lose Your Sense of Humor
When all is said and done – families can usually find something to laugh about. Yes the women may complain about the men, the men may tease the women, the grandparents may be telling a story everyone has heard. If well intentioned it can actually help everyone with the more difficult times. If you head home laughing because “ you just can’t make it up” you have taken something from family that supports your relationship and is a wonderful source of resiliency.
“ Laughter is the Shortest Distance Between Two People.” ( Victor Borge)
For Further Reading
Boscarino, J.A., Adams, R. & Figley, C., (2005) A prospective cohort study of the ffectiveness of employer-sponsored crisis interventions after a major disaster. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 7,9-22.
Family Systems Theory (PDF)